Cleantech 50 to Watch Case Study: Phycobloom

Solution: 

Phycobloom is a developer of novel strains of algae that use atmospheric CO2 to create hydrocarbons.

Nisa Mirza of Cleantech Group sat down with Dr. John Waite, Co-Founder of Phycobloom to talk about what made them a Cleantech 50 to Watch company.

Cleantech Group:  Can you speak to the origins of Phycobloom?

Dr. John Waite: Phycobloom is actually the brainchild of my Co-Founder, Dr. Ian Hu.  Ten years ago, he was looking at the algae biofuel industry as it was in its death throes.  The industry went through a major growth phase, and then it all seemed to wane between 2012 and 2013.  Ian was observing the situation, thinking that there must be a way to make this technology work and to make algae biofuels affordable.  As a biologist, he thought about how he could tackle this technology-profitability problem. The idea fermented with him for 5–6 years through his Master’s and Ph.D. studies.

I met Ian in 2019 when we both took part in Entrepreneur First.  Hu and I bonded over our shared understanding of cleantech.  We both had similar values in terms of the kind of technology we wanted to build.  With a background in material science and metallurgy, I was in an excellent position to support him in explaining his idea.

Dr. Ian Hu and Dr. John Waite, Co-Founders of Phycobloom

I took over the commercial and operational side, allowing Dr. Hu to focus on what he had been planning for years, which was building this technology.  Overall, it was a matter of the right timing and being able to understand and execute his vision.  Frankly, it was almost a marriage of convenience at Entrepreneur First.  The program is quite a crucible for some people.  We were lucky to have found each other when we did.

Cleantech Group:  What are the core principles of Phycobloom?

Dr. John Waite: Over the next 10 years, biofuels are going to become an essential part of the energy mix. There’s no way to stop it. They’re here to stay. The market will be massive. However, our second core belief is that the current generation of biofuels is not sufficient to fuel that growth.  And if we allow this industry to explode, and all we’re using is palm oil, grapeseed oil, used cooking oil, etc., it’s going to lead us down a very dark path.  And it’s not going to be better than fossil fuels because biofuels won’t be able to live up to their potential.

Hence, what we’re here to do is make sure that when the industry grows and it reaches for an off-the-shelf solution of clean feedstock oil for its fuel, it puts its hand on the cheapest, most sustainable version possible, which for us is algae.  Algae is fantastic at eating CO2 and turning it into oil.  The price point is so high because it’s difficult to get those oils out of the algae.  

They store oil as a means of storing energy.  Therefore, extracting it requires you to drain the pond, scoop all your green sludge out of the pond, put it in a centrifuge, and run the centrifuge for ages.  Next, you take the green dry powder, and separate it chemically.  Mechanically, there are simply too many bottlenecks there.  Phycobloom’s idea is to use biology to circumvent that process.

Cleantech Group:  What do you feed the algae?

Dr. John Waite: The main inputs are CO2. Algae are very, very good at eating CO2, but you do need to give it to them.  Air will slowly diffuse into the water so that it will accumulate naturally, but it’s very, very slow.  You generally need to do something to help it, by either rapidly mixing the water or pumping CO2 in from a point source.  Perhaps algae are very robust, though they don’t need to have a very pure CO2 form.  You could basically pump in neat flu gas from a cement plant, and you would just need to chop it all up. 

Additionally, algae naturally needs water. Hydrocarbons have hydro hydrogen in them. They get that from the water, so you need to put a lot of water in.  Like any living plant, algae needs some basic nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus and a lot of fertilizer to keep them growing.  

This point separates Phycobloom from the old-style algae 1.0. processes in which you are growing your biomass as fast as you can so that you can harvest it and then reseed it.

For us, we grow our biomass, but then we leave it alone.  We do not harvest or extract it.  We actually let it sit still for as long as we can, often a month or two.  You don’t need as much fertilizer at that point.  You’re not growing as much biomass, and you’re still getting out lots of oil, but you’re not consuming your biomass together, so your fertilizer burden is way, way down.  That’s a huge cost advantage for us, but it’s also a good thing in terms of sustainability.  Fertilizers are a large source of carbon dioxide and other emissions, so the less virtualization that is used, the better.

Cleantech Group:  Do you have an in-house production system to produce biofuel?

Dr. John Waite: Not yet.  Our solution is still at the conceptual prototype stage.  Our objective is to use genetic engineering, also known as synthetic biology, to create algae that are able to secrete oils into their media.  Consequently, you don’t ever need to interact with them.  You can grow them, allow them to eat CO2, and leak these oils into their pond where you can scoop them off the surface, so you bypass expensive engineering.

Our current prototype is an algae strain in a test tube.  If I leave it in my window over time, an oil layer will form on the surface, and it will get thicker and thicker and thicker.  It’s really exciting.  We need to keep doing R&D to improve the technology, improve the rate at which it works, and improve the scale at which it works, and that’s really where our core focus is now.

Cleantech Group:  Can you simply explain your synthetic biological IP?

Dr. John Waite: If you put algae in a pond and they grow up to a high density which is the norm, algae will eat what they can until they reach the limit of their pond.  Afterward, they will switch to an energy-saving mode.  If algae aren’t growing, they store energy as oil.  Once they get fat, the synthetic biology processes kick in.

We attached a load of taps to these algae and broke them off, so they’re stuck in an open position.  As soon as they start accumulating oil, it just starts leaking out.  That oil is insoluble in water, so once it’s outside of the cell, it forms a surface layer.  And then we have a proprietary process to remove that oil very cheaply and efficiently from the surface of the pond.  And that means you have clean oil feedstock.  Oil is technically a free fatty acid that you can then take and send to a biofuel producer.

Our IP is in the genetic edit of the algae, not a specific strain. We have protected the use of a certain kind of protein in a certain type of algae.

Cleantech Group:  Have you thought about where you would want to have your plant facility once you get there?

Dr. John Waite:  Good question. I think our first facility is going to be very sensitive to a lot of different elements.  First, it’s got to be a good place to grow algae, so it will have to be in a pretty warm climate.  It’s going to have to be very bright.  It will have to be close to seawater and have a lot of land available.  Algae doesn’t need agricultural land, which is a key advantage.  They can grow on almost anything.  But you do need some sort of wasteland.  Effectively, you’re looking at coastal deserts around the equatorial regions, such as the Middle East, Northern Africa, and the southern states of the Americas.

Cleantech Group:  Who is your target market?

Dr. John Waite:  In terms of the value chain of biofuels, we’re not going to be selling to petrol stations or to airlines. We’re going to be selling to biofuel producers.  We’re replacing the oil rig, but we’re not replacing the downstream petrochemicals.  So, there’s still a role for BP, Shell, and Neste, a renewable energy group that takes these oils and turns them into fuel.  The end-product that our algae produces can’t go into a car directly.  It still needs to go through chemical conversions to become a biofuel.

Cleantech Group:  What is your objective over the next 5 years?

Dr. John Waite: We’ve developed our proof of concept and we’ve shown that science can work.  The goal for the next two years is to take that science and create a real product with it.  We want to push the performance of our algae forward and show that they can secrete oil at the rate we need while being robust enough to survive outdoors.  We’re still not at a large scale by any stretch, but we’re showing it all working together on a small scale.

We’ve been fundraising for the last few months, and we have just been awarded a Breakthrough Energy Fellowship in its second cohort.  It’s a huge opportunity for us to really push our R&D forward and to develop the technology.   Overall, we’re on the cusp of a big growth phase, including opening a new lab in our current building and expanding personnel to accelerate our R&D.

For more information, visit the Phycobloom website.

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